MANATEE COUNTY -- Shoppers stand back behind the line, anxiously awaiting their next chance to find treasures as store workers wheel totes filled with everything from toys to clothing onto the floor.
Then it's a mad dash, each shopper hoping to be the first to find a great bargain as they fling open the totes and begin to hunt.
It's just another day at Goodwill's Sarasota Bargain Barn on 15th Street East in southern Manatee. The scene is repeated hourly each day as new merchandise arrives constantly by truck from the retail stores and clearance centers across Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties.
It's part of the Goodwill River -- the process Goodwill Manasota uses to recycle and reuse nearly all of the 650,000 donations it receives annually.
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"It helps us maximize our donations," President Bob Rosinsky says about the bargain barn, the final local destination for donations before they are shipped across country or overseas by bulk to vendors as salvage.
About 80 percent of the Goodwill operations across the United States have bargain barns. Goodwill Manasota has had one since 1998. A second operates in North Port.
Everyone from college students, low-income families and islanders driving Mercedes looking for a bargain shop at the store, Rosinsky said. He estimates about 50 to 60 percent operate small businesses at flea markets or second-hand shops and resell the merchandise. The average transaction is $7 to $8 with clothing selling for $1.59 per pound and books from 25 cents to 99 cents.
"This is their business. They take it seriously," he said.
Sonia Barrera, a team leader coach who supervises 10 employees at the Airport Bargain Barn, knows her customers, many by name. The "regulars" come every day, often there before 9 a.m. when the store opens and stay until 6 p.m. when it closes.
"There are usually two lines with about 20 people when I get here at 8," she said.
One of the regulars -- Jose Luis of Bradenton -- was busy Thursday hunting through totes to find toys and clothing to ship back to his family in Veracruz, Mexico, where they will sell it at a flea market.
Luis spends about $50 to $60 a day at the bargain barn and for the last six years has been sending his purchases every 15 days to Mexico. He estimates he makes about $15,000 to $20,000 a year in the reselling process.
"My family has sold things at flea markets since I was little," he said. "I have three boys and now they sell."
The Goodwill River --
the process of recycling and reusing donations -- begins at local retail stores or donation centers when a donation is made. It then goes through a complicated sorting and tagging process by workers who are trained to recognize the value -- whether it's an antique, collectible or expensive product.
"The sorters know brand names, they know the quality," said Barbara Hoffman, operations trainer and coach. Each donation is examined and those deemed not worthy to go into a retail shop go straight to the bargain barn.
Sometimes an unexpected donation is worthy of extra attention like a unique metal sculpture by widely known artist Paul Tamamian that was valued at $15,000. Goodwill was able to sell it for $5,000.
"We advertised it on our social media posts," said Yen Reed, director of marketing.
Another donation -- a baby grand piano valued at $20,000 -- was auctioned off for $7,000.
Rosinsky says the key to Goodwill's successful retail business is constantly rotating merchandise. Merchandise at retail stores is replenished every three weeks and when items hit the bargain barn the stay is even shorter -- 24 hours tops.
"Customers want fresh, fresh, fresh," he said. "It is up to us to identify the best use and the highest value of an item. Our success depends on that."
Prices are normally one-third to one-fourth of the value of new merchandise. Other sources like eBay are used to price items. Everyday items like clothing are priced very low to maximize volume, Reed said.
"We know when we hear dealers squeal, we have hit the right price," Rosinsky said.
Goodwill Manasota works with 12 to 15 vendors to process the bargain barn remains like books and clothing. About 12 to 13 percent of all donations end up in the landfill -- mostly furniture and electronics, the hardest products to recycle, Rosinsky said
"But that's compared to 25 percent several years ago," he quickly added.
Pioneer Recycling in Largo is one of Goodwill Manasota's vendors. It buys the glass, cardboard, beds and books leftover at the bargain barns and recycles the products, which are then sold to other vendors.
Books are shredded and sold to paper mills to be used for paper and cardboard, said Tony McCarthy, president of the company. Glass is recycled and sold to glass manufacturers who use it to make more glass. Beds are torn down to the springs and remade into new beds, he said. The material left over is used to make carpets.
"We are a very unique, one-of-a-kind company,"McCarthy said. "We sell mainly to companies in Florida and only about 1 percent of what we buy is thrown away."
McCarthy said the company, which formed in 2003, is investigating avenues to recycle furniture and electronics.
"If we see something you are throwing away, that's gold," he said.
Vendors, who resell to other vendors in Africa, India and South America, buy much of Goodwill's leftover clothing, paying 25 to 30 cents a pound and reselling them for much more. T-shirts in Africa sell for $1, a big price for many there, Rosinsky said.
"They like to get American-made clothing," he said.
Sam Budd, director of materials management at Goodwill Manasota, said he is always looking for more vendors.
"We try to source locally as much as we can, then regionally and nationally," he said. "It is a constant search."